The first thing to go is sour. That hit of brightness a squeeze of lime brings to just about anything? Splitsville. Suddenly, all the sharp edges of food are planed off. It’s like listening to a favorite song with the treble turned down: recognizable but hardly compelling. Acid is just the first flavor casualty of radiation. Salty flees, and no amount of over-seasoning can lure it back. Spice vanishes. Only a week into treatment, and everything that passes my lips tastes like brunch at the gulag. I dream of savoring a lengua taco from Tacos Lolita, a favorite stand in Mexico City’s Roma neighborhood.
Two weeks into radiation, everything tastes like a nickel from the floor of a public restroom. That simple taco—meat crispy on the edges and dressed with cilantro and onion—becomes a totem of everything I’ve lost. Taste buds fried, I’m not sure if treatment is any better than the cancer that got me here. My brain switches off the hunger impulse. Food becomes revolting. I’m running on 1,000 calories a day and shedding body mass. I start this whole cancer thing at 160 pounds. By the end, I’ll bottom out at 130. What doctors don’t tell you is that when you finish a course of radiation you will feel the worst you’ll ever feel. (The medical establishment is big on irony.) As I leave Lenox Hill hospital after my last blast of gamma rays, I have the lithe physique of Mick Jagger circa 1970, but I can barely make it up to my third-floor apartment. Worse, not only has eating ceased being pleasurable, but I also haven’t been to a restaurant or bar in weeks. Just when I need the surefire solace that comes from sharing a meal with friends and family, it has abandoned me.
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And then, like an ex-girlfriend who blows into town for a long weekend, my taste buds return just enough to remind me of how things used to be. The first rekindling comes in the form of two four-minute eggs with a knob of butter and plenty of salt and pepper, eaten from a coffee mug—my grandfather’s go-to breakfast. It’s pure fat, salt and comfort. I am almost delirious with joy. For the first time since my cancer diagnosis, I cry. My wife chalks it up to Percocet and misplaced priorities.